Historian Anthony Cohen spoke to a group of more than 100 people Wednesday at Coffman Union about travelling along the Underground Railroad, which is the network of rail lines and waterways slaves used to escape to the north. Slaves travelled the Underground Railroad from the American Revolution to the Civil War, when they were freed.
But Cohen said the Underground Railroad was about more than just freedom.
“The Underground Railroad was the first Civil Rights movement, and was genuinely a multi-cultural event,” Cohen said.
In May 1996, the Maryland native traced the route of the Underground Railroad, travelling 1,200 miles from Sandy Creek, Md., to Amherstburg, Ontario. Determined to experience the journey of an escaped slave, Cohen was even shipped by train inside a wooden crate from Philadelphia to New York.
Cohen described the Underground Railroad as “one of the most positive aspects of our heritage, although it grew out of one of the most insidious chapters in our history.”
Cohen’s research into the Underground Railroad began as his senior thesis in history at American University. He said since the Underground Railroad was kept a secret while slaves were using it, traditional written information was difficult to find.
“There is so much we don’t know about this period of history,” said Coffman Forum coordinator Ann Le.
After finishing his thesis, Cohen began talking to elementary school children about the Underground Railroad. As they began to ask how it felt to be an escaped slave, he got the idea to travel the routes former slaves used to escape.
As Cohen traveled, people showed him “stations” along the route including houses and barns. Traveling with food and water and having a safe place to stay every night, however, left him without a true feeling of how the slaves felt as they escaped to the north.
To experience what it was like to escape, Cohen followed the escape route of former slave Henry Brown, who was shipped by steamship and train from Richmond, Va., to New York.
Cohen’s five-and-a-half-hour journey by train from Philadelphia to New York in the crate was miserable.
“I just kept thinking about how Henry Brown’s trip lasted 26 hours, and that got me through,” Cohen said. He also described the dangers involved in his trip, including extreme heat.
“After about two and a half hours in the box I stopped sweating,” Cohen said. “And then I got really scared.
Upon his arrival in New York, Cohen got out of the crate at the train station.
“I remember my friend saying, Tony, you can climb out now. You’re a free man,'” Cohen said. “And for the first time in my life, I knew what it felt like to be a free man, because I had earned it. It felt good to be alive.”